Krakow was not on our initial wish list for Europe. Nor did it make it onto the second draft. Or the third. In fact, I only added it tentatively when I read a blog post raving about it as a less touristy version of Prague. It was Rick Steves (<3) who convinced me to add Poland’s cultural capital to our trip. Why not? When else would I have the chance to get to Poland, right?
Rick was so right: Krakow is pretty awesome. We only spent three days in Krakow, but we felt like we got a good sampling of what this city has to offer visitors.
We had arrived the previous night after a LONG, horrible bus ride from Budapest. Krakow is shockingly poorly connected with nearby major cities and in the future I would look into flying in and out of Poland. Depending on when you arrive, you may want some extra Zzzzz’s before hitting the town.
Our Airbnb host told us about a tiny hole in the wall walk up counter where they serve only pierogi. The delectable pillows of potato and meat and cheese stuffed dumplings topped with caramelized onions were so delicious and set a gold standard for all other pierogi on our polish trip. Lesson for the day: eat where you Airbnb hosts tell you to eat.
Explore Market Square
After stuffing ourselves with as many pierogi as possible we waddled into the old part of the city to explore. We hit up Market Square and spent time in the Cloth Market and St. Mary’s Basilica. The Cloth Market mostly sells amber jewelry and other souvenirs now, instead of cloth, but it was fun looking at all the touristy trinkets. St. Mary’s is beautiful and has one os the coolest alter pieces that we saw in Europe.
Old Town Free Walking Tour
There are free walking tours in most major cities in Europe and they are a fabulous way with getting acquainted with any destination. Most of the time you hit all the major tourist spots, plus you get more history and information than you would if you were wandering around alone. We try to take a tour first thing in a new city and then make a list of places we want to re-visit on our own time.
Although these tours are technically free, the guides work for tips. It’s up to you how much you tip your guide and we decide how much to leave based on how long the tour was and how knowledgeable the guide. We have had very few poor guides and a few truly excellent ones. Our guide in Krakow was awesome. And he looked just like Jason Segel. Bonus.
We took a 4 pm tour “Old Town Krakow” tour with the company Free Walking Tours. Click here to check out their schedule.
Wieliczka Salt Mine
We love going underground, so we knew we would be headed out of Krakow to nearby Wieliczka Salt Mine. The only way to see the mine is on a tour, so we tagged along with about 50 other English-speaking tourists and we walked the 400 steps down into the main part of the mine.
The mine was super cool. The tour was just okay. It was pretty interesting, although a little cheesy. Having so many people on a tour sucks, and we generally don’t like paying for tours, but seeing the mine makes it worth it. Everything in the mine is made of salt. The floors are salt, the ceilings are salt, and there are salt sculptures, salt inscriptions, and even salt chandeliers. People have been mining this mine for hundreds of years and the miners carved chapels inside the mine to pray in.
We found the mine to be interesting and beautiful and unique. It was well-worth the time and money.
Jewish Quarter Walking Tour
We took a second walking tour with Free Walking Tours, this time to the Jewish Quarter of Krakow. This tour focuses on the old Jewish Quarter of the city and the people who lived there. Pre-World War II the Jewish population of Krakow was over 80,000. Now that number is approximately 150. The tour was packing with information and was pretty depressing, but I thought it was fascinating.
Today the Jewish Quarter is home to the majority of the city’s bars, and tons of restaurants, so before leaving the Quarter be sure to grab a drink and some food. We went for cocktails at a super hipster bar and the indulged in zapiekanki, Polish drunk food. Basically half a French baguette covered in toppings. Yum!!!
Auschwitz (and Birkenau)
It would be a travel travesty if you went to Poland and didn’t make a trip to one the concentration camps. We decided to go to one of the most visited camps, Auschwitz (and Birkenau).
The only way to see Auschwitz between the hours of 10 am -3 pm is to take a tour, so once again we joined to horde of tourists (seriously a horde, like 150 people) at the meeting point and after being divided into three smaller groups (and by small I mean 50 people) the group descended on the camp.
Our first guide at the camp was horrible. He was angry and antagonistic and spoke to the group like we were all 1940’s Nazi sympathizers who needed to be convinced that the Holocaust happened and that it was awful. I got so angry that he was turning our tour into a verbal assault that we decided to covertly change guides. Our next guide was extremely dry and boring, but was informative and we were able to better take in the site and feel however we wanted to feel about it.
It was strange to be in a place where so many people had lived and died, and the piles of shoes, suitcases, glasses and hair acted as chilling reminders of the human aspect of the camp.
I honestly don’t know how I felt about my experience at Auschwitz, other than feeling that it was necessary that we go. It’s one of those historical experiences that I think everyone should do if they are in this area of Europe, if only to help keep the memory of what happened here alive, so that it will never happen again. If we were to go again I probably would want to go before 10 or after 3 to avoid taking the tour. There are lots of signs with information and I would have liked to have more time to take in the camp and pause and think.
We really liked Krakow. It is one of the least crowded major cities we have been to, and wandering the old streets was easy and beautiful. It really is a good alternative to Prague, where you have to push through masses of people on the main square. Krakow was not as beautiful as Budapest or as varied as Rome, but it was extremely interesting and we really saw and learned a lot. On top of that, the food was amazing and the beer is cheap. Pierogi, zapiekanki, meat, goulash. Yum. A few days in Krakow is definitely worth the journey.
Dollars and Sense
Krakow is very cheap compared to many other major European cities. We budgeted 100 euros per day (50 euros per person) and were easily able to spend below that.
Airbnb- 27 euro per night for a private room on our own floor of the house, 10 minutes by bus from old city center
Plate of perogi- 3.50 euro
Salt Mine (with photo pass)- ~20 euro per person
Shuttle to and from Auschwitz- 6 euro per person
Auschwitz tour- 9 euro per person (entrance is free)